Contrasting interpretations of Gallipoli

Joseph Croitoru reports on how leaders in Ankara are putting an Islamist spin on centenary commemorations of the Gallipoli Campaign and how they seem to hope that these events will detract attention from another centenary occurring this week: that of the Armenian genocide

By Joseph Croitoru

The Gallipoli Campaign, when the Ottoman army prevented the invasion of the Turkish peninsula by the Entente powers in 1915, a confrontation in which both sides incurred heavy losses, remains to this day central to the culture of remembrance not only in Turkey, but also in Australia and New Zealand. The latter two countries were involved in the failed Dardanelles Campaign, which sought to wrest control of the Bosporus from the Ottomans, through ANZAC, the Australian New Zealand Army Corps of the British armed forces.

It is now 100 years since the Battle of Gallipoli. For both the victors and the vanquished in this campaign, commemorating this wartime episode – which has largely been forgotten in Germany – has long assumed the form of a national cult. Kenan Celik, a former English Studies lecturer from Turkey, who has for many years been taking tourists to visit key wartime sites, has been following this development with keen interest. The initial trigger, he recently wrote in the Istanbul magazine "Turkish Policy Quarterly", was the 1981 film "Gallipoli" by Australian director Peter Weir.

Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, 1915 (photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, 1915. On 25 April 1915, Anzac troops (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) tried in vain to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. According to Joseph Croitoru, 7,925 of them lost their lives

A baptism of fire for two nations

With Mel Gibson in one of the leading roles, Weir illustrated the senselessness of the Gallipoli mission, focusing on the deployment of Australian ground troops who, like their fellow soldiers from New Zealand, walked straight into Turkish machine gunfire at a cost of 7,925 lives. Nevertheless, the campaign was internalised by both the Australians and the New Zealanders as a baptism of fire for their fledgling nations.

While this film came in for some criticism abroad at the time of its release because it portrayed the British commanders as unscrupulous, it was received with enthusiasm in the director's homeland. Increasing numbers of Australians and later also New Zealanders – a country that lost 2,445 troops during the landings – then began to make pilgrimages to Gallipoli. Thousands now come to Gallipoli every year to mark what is known as Anzac Day on 25 April. Appearances by politicians have long become routine, and despite all the patriotic rhetoric, the events have always been underpinned by an eagerness for reconciliation with the Turkish side.

In 1985, for example, Australia's Minister for Veterans' Affairs had a huge tablet erected not far from the landing point near Gaba Tepe (Ariburnu). The monument bears the words of the welcoming address made by Ataturk, the incumbent Turkish president, to the first Anglo-Saxon visitors to the place in 1934. As a young officer in 1915 under the command of German ally Otto Liman von Sanders, Ataturk succeeded in fending off the Anzac troops. This made him famous, and his gesture in 1934 honoured the victims on both sides: the "Mehmets" as well as the "Johnnies", whom he described as "heroes" and "brothers".

According to Celik, the steady stream of visitors from abroad also stimulated Turkish interest in the place. Although for many years, annual commemorative events were held in Turkey on 18 March (the day on which the Ottomans, with German support, sank several Entente ships in the Dardanelles, thereby preventing the fleet's breakthrough), Gallipoli as a location played a marginal role in these.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that a cemetery was established there in honour of the fallen Ottomans and a monument to the victims of the 57th Infantry Regiment commanded by Ataturk was erected in addition to a monument to all Turkish "martyrs" dating from 1960.

Visitors from Australia and New Zealand walk past gravestones at the Lone Pine Australian memorial in Gallipoli, 23 April 2015 (photo: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Visitors from Australia and New Zealand walk past gravestones at the Lone Pine Australian memorial in Gallipoli, where the first battle of the Gallipoli campaign was fought, on 23 April 2015. According to Kenan Celik, increasing numbers of Australians and later also New Zealanders began to make pilgrimages to Gallipoli after Peter Weir's 1981 film "Gallipoli"

The AKP's popularised commemoration policy

Back then, the Kemalist commemoration policy highlighted the role of Ataturk in particular. In recent years, however, there has been a shift under the AKP government. Its aim is to popularise and also Islamise commemoration of the Dardanelles Campaign. But as the Istanbul professor of sociology Ayhan Aktar recently stated, even before the AKP era, the official Turkish historical view of the Battle of Gallipoli had been problematic because of its fixation on Turkishness.

As well as blanking out the fact that representatives of other ethnic groups also fought on the Ottoman side, the military assistance provided by the Germans also became a footnote, says Aktar. The names of the German soldiers cited by Aktar in this context were probably taken from the study "Gallipoli 1915 – the German-Turkish Military Alliance in the First World War" by the German army colonel Klaus Wolf, which was published in Germany in 2008 and in translation in Turkey in 2014, where it was widely read.

As far as Aktar is concerned, further research is required here, and he is critical of the fact that the relevant files on Germany's involvement in the war are still under lock and key in the Turkish Chief of Staff office archives.

Aktar is critical of the AKP's commemoration policy too. He says this policy is the reason why an increasing number of groups – school-age children and adults alike – are visiting Gallipoli and having the tendentious image of an "Ottoman-Islamic defensive battle against the infidels" drummed into them.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited his Armenian counterpart to a commemorative event to mark the Gallipoli centennial on 24 April, the centenary of the Armenian genocide. The invitation was tersely declined by Serzh Sargsyan (pictured here), who described it as "cynical and short-sighted"

A history lesson in the spirit of jihad

This, says Aktar, is rendering the Kemalist reading of the "glorious Turkish army" victory obsolete. He goes on to say that the guided tours are beginning to look more and more like religious pilgrimages.

Indeed, as far back as 10 years ago, the newspaper "Milliyet" complained that AKP supporters were getting a history lesson in the spirit of jihad and were showing a lack of respect by pick-nicking in the cemeteries for fallen foreign soldiers. Aktar claims that this view of history has become increasingly common currency in recent years. As proof of this, he cites Erdogan's statement of September 2013, in which the then Turkish Prime Minister branded the Western attack on the Dardanelles a "crusade".

This trend was also evident at the most recent official Gallipoli anniversary events on 18 March. Mehmet Gormez, head of Turkey's state-run Directorate General for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), drew the wrath of the chairman of the Kemalist Republic People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, by only mentioning Ataturk in passing at a ceremony at Gallipoli dedicated to Turkish war victims, and not referring to him as "Father of the Turks" (the literal translation of the name Ataturk), something that Kilicdaroglu castigated as "ungrateful".

This incident is symptomatic of the debate about the figure of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the republic, which has been raging in Turkey with increasing acuity for several years now: AKP cadres systematically avoid using his honorary title, Ataturk, and instead call him "Gazi" – an honorary title for an Islamic conqueror used to acknowledge Kemal's wartime achievements during the pre-republic era.

Gormez's address was also loaded with religious symbolism and made repeated reference to God using Arabic phrasing, which was aimed at injecting his words with an Islamic authenticity.

This spirit also pervades the March issue of the Diyanet magazine, which is dedicated to the Gallipoli centenary. The name "Ataturk" appears just once in the 84 pages of the edition, namely in an interview with Mehmed Niyazi, the author of popular historical works and novels. His 1999 novella "The Apocalypse of Gallipoli" is now in its 52nd edition and has inspired countless movie and stage productions.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Historically downgraded: "AKP cadres systematically avoid using his honorary title Ataturk and instead call him "Gazi" – an honorary title for an Islamic conqueror used to acknowledge Kemal's wartime achievements during the pre-republic era," writes Joseph Croitoru

Demystifying the Battle of Gallipoli

Niyazi's success is also due to the fact that years of meticulous research make his descriptions of the battles highly realistic, thereby demystifying both them and Ataturk's involvement in the military success, which has always been exaggerated by his devotees. Incidentally, Ataturk's devotees persist with a version of their idol that is devoid of all religiousness. But in the interview, the writer Niyazi casts the war hero in an unusual light: mid-battle, says Niyazi, he extolled the self-sacrifice of his soldiers and in particular of those who, having derived strength from the Koran, readied themselves for the afterlife.

This re-Islamisation of the image of the heroic defensive battle is also backed up in the Diyanet magazine by Yavuz Bahadiroglu, a popular historian of the Ottoman era courted by the AKP. He is fond of drawing attention to an aspect of the German-Turkish brotherhood of arms that was for a long time suppressed in both nations, namely that the German Empire made deliberate attempts at the time to inflame the jihad spirit in the Ottomans, thereby hoping to mobilise other Muslims against its opponents on the battlefield. Bahadiroglu illustrates this with a scene in which commander-in-chief von Sanders, during an inspection of Turkish troops, praised their battle cry "For Allah!" with a "Bravo!".

The Turkish centenary event in March served as a prelude to a second, which is being held on 24 April, the day before Anzac Day. The main Gallipoli centenary event announced by Ankara, which was preceded by an international "peace summit" held on 23 April in Istanbul, is officially taking place in the spirit of international understanding. But it is obviously intended to detract attention from Armenian genocide commemorations taking place on the same day.

Erdogan, who sent invitations to more than 70 heads of state, even had the audacity to invite his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan. Like Sargsyan, the German government declined to attend. The heads of government from Australia and New Zealand are, however, expected to be there. But their many compatriots also travelling to Gallipoli this year will have to bow to a new Turkish government dictate: as of this year, it is prohibited to consume alcohol at Anzac Day events.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon